NCMM Alumni: Preben Morth
Professor J Preben Morth was one of the first group leaders recruited to NCMM. He joined the Centre from Aarhus University, Denmark, in October 2010.
The Morth Group in 2015. (LR) Preben Morth, Carolina Alvadia, Bojana Sredic, Saranya Subramani, Stephanie Ruhland and Johannes Bauer. Photo: Terje Heiestad/NCMM
Preben was head of the Membrane Transport Group at NCMM until rotating out of the Centre in August 2019, after accepting a permanent professorship at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU).
Can you tell me about how you came to apply for the GL position at NCMM?
I initially spent five years working as a postdoc and an assistant professor in Denmark, but was increasingly feeling like I was ready to become an independent PI. I was also conscious that for my career to progress, I needed to spend some time working in a different lab from the one I had completed my PhD and postdoc. I think that if you stay in the same place for too long it perhaps is harder to prove that you are a truly independent researcher.
The NCMM group leader position promised to give me the time and money to start my own group and my own projects. The Centre was also recently established, so it was a fantastic opportunity to play a part in building something completely from scratch. I also liked the fact that the role could be extended after the first five years. By this point, I already had a daughter and so the security of a longer-term role was also really attractive. Having this stability is really important if you’re going to move to another country and start a completely new group. It was also exciting to go and live and work in another Scandinavian country.
How was it joining a centre that was in its early stages of operations, whilst also being one of the first group leaders to be recruited?
Whilst it was exciting and refreshing to be part of something so new, the role naturally came with some challenges. Not many facilities had been established by the time I joined but many of the things that were missing were just practicalities. I tried to just accept the situation and move on. With hindsight, if I was ever in the position to set up a research centre from scratch, I don’t think I could have done many things differently.
I and the other new recruits certainly felt very supported by NCMM’s SAB (Scientific Advisory Board) at the time, they gave us a lot of leverage to do what we wanted. They understood that, as we were so new, it was going to take some time to get things truly established. Ian (Mills) and I were the first group leaders to be recruited, and we started collaborating very early on. It was very helpful to have someone in the same boat as me and who shared some of my research interests. We had different leadership styles but we complemented one another well. It took a while to publish something together, but from the start, we were thinking about how we might work together.
One thing that might have been helpful would have been to talk to Ian about his research plans before I started, just to see what kind of ideas he had and how we might fit around one another. Erlend (Nagelhus) was also a great colleague in these early days. He was not physically based at NCMM like we were, but it was good to have someone who understood the Norwegian system.
What were your plans for your first group? For example, what was the main focus when it came to recruiting people?
I have always focused on personality when it comes to recruiting. At Aarhus University, where I was before joining NCMM, we had a really nice group dynamic. I was able to convince one of the postdocs there to come along to NCMM with me and this helped to keep this team spirit going. I always tried to build an inclusive environment where everyone was open to helping one another. Research is very much a team effort and you can’t have super-individualists who are only focused on their own career. I needed people who were happy to help out with a bit of everything and who were also willing to do things that were not part of their job description. I also tended never to take the ‘best’ candidate that was presented on paper but rather chose people based on our chemistry and if I thought they would fit in with the rest of the group. They also needed to show good potential and have ideas about what they wanted to do with their research.
In the beginning I used to get a bit frustrated with the recruitment system imposed by the University of Oslo, where there always had to be three people on the hiring committee. However, with experience and hindsight, I now realise why it is so important to have a second opinion.
What did you most enjoy about your time as an NCMM group leader?
I really enjoyed being associated with something that seemed bigger than myself and being part of something so new. I felt like I was jumping off a cliff edge without really knowing what was going to come next; something I have always enjoyed. I liked being able to take advantage of an opportunity if it presented itself to me, rather than having to be following a fixed plan. I have never been someone with tunnel vision when it comes to research ideas. NCMM offered me a lot of space and time to nurture this kind of mindset. If I hadn’t been at NCMM then I possibly would have never ended up doing the kinds of projects that I worked on. I had enough funding and the longer contract gave me a lot of freedom. I did slightly struggle with the fact that the Centre didn’t appear to have a fixed vision in terms of its research directions but, in the end, this was a benefit because I felt that I could truly follow my interests rather than have to fit myself into a rigid system.
What did you find the most challenging aspect of being an NCMM group leader?
I found adjusting to the Norwegian academic environment quite challenging. As a new group leader in a new centre, who was also new to Norway, I sometimes felt alone and a bit disconnected to the wider research environment. I can only imagine how it might have been for someone who also didn’t understand the language. It was tough coming into an environment where you had to start a lot of things from scratch, and then having to worry about things like your Norwegian tax return and setting up a bank account. It sometimes felt like there perhaps wasn’t much understanding of how it was to be new in Norway. However, I can now say that I realise this isn’t a uniquely Norwegian trait as I have struggled with the same things after moving back to Denmark.
I was, however, able to build my own networks for support. Finding a mentor was encouraged by NCMM and, by a series of coincidences, I met and got along with Professor Oddmund Bakke (Institute of Biosciences, UiO) with whom I am still writing papers with. I was really lucky to have a senior professor like Oddmund who I could trust and confide in when I needed. Even though he worked on cellular biology and I worked on structural biology, we managed to publish several papers together by taking advantage of each other’s techniques! He was also able to show and teach me a lot about the inner-workings of the University and how it functioned.
Do you feel that the ‘EMBL model’ (5+4 years contract, with the review, emphasis on international recruitment etc) was useful in terms of preparing you for rotating out to a permanent professor position?
The 5+4 years’ contract was a very good starting point for a newly independent group leader because it gave me the time and space to do things how I wanted to in terms of building my group and starting research projects. When I applied for the group leader position, it wasn’t immediately clear what NCMM wanted and I think this worked to my advantage. The downside was that when I joined, a lot of time and energy had to be spent on establishing myself and whilst five years sounds like a long time, it flies by. I also feel that more could have been done to try and help integrate group leaders into the Norwegian system. After their time is up, many return to their home country or go elsewhere and don’t stay in Norway. The big initial investment in them is a bit of a waste if they leave Norway behind at the end of their contract.
Do you have any advice that could help group leaders starting at NCMM, for example, could something be improved in terms of embedding new group leaders within the centre?
What helped me was to start collaborating as soon as I could. It’s important to try new things out in the early days when can and not wait till later on when you have many deadlines and other obligations. You also need to just take advantage of everything that comes your way. If it’s possible to put some of your budget towards larger projects then I think that can also pay off. For example, the seed funding offered as part of the NCMM Associate Investigator initiative brought a lot of benefits for me. Every grant I was awarded brought something new for me; such as a new collaborator or some new equipment. For example, the Incucyte machine at NCMM was bought with one of these grants, and I and several other group leaders used it a lot. So in the grander scheme, these kinds of opportunities benefitted both myself and my colleagues.
What advice would you give to younger researchers who want to become a group leader?
It’s important to realise that your first scientific idea might not be your best one. It’s also important to realise that your own career can’t always come first. You need to make sure that the people you are responsible for are happy and well taken care of. You need to make sure that they get their publications and degrees, even if it might compromise your chances of publishing a higher impact paper. It’s also good to just publish something when you can and then have the confidence to keep working in the hope that it leads to something better. And, if it doesn’t, then it’s not the end of the world! From my perspective, this attitude has worked well for me. Two of my PhD students came to Denmark with me and we now meet when we can are now working on a few projects together. My initial investment in their future has therefore paid off, bringing further benefits for me.
NCMM recruited three young group leaders in 2009-10 and sadly, one of them, Prof. Erlend Nagelhus, died very unexpectedly in January 2020. Do you have any memories of him that you would like to share?
Erlend was always so helpful and he took a genuine interest in others. He was a great speaker and his performance as a PhD chairman was outstanding. He had a very nice style of being able to tell a personal story that somehow then tied back into the work presented by the student; I think this was a real skill and it helped to put the candidate at ease. He didn’t just talk about how much he cared; he showed it through his actions. He was extremely perceptive of people and could calm down any situation. I really do miss him.
What do you most miss about Norway and NCMM?
In terms of Norway, I maybe didn’t fully appreciate the work-life balance mentality. It could be frustrating at times when I needed something urgently and someone was off or slow to reply to my emails. However, the more experienced I have become, the more I recognise how important this balance is. On the stressful days, it was so nice to be able to walk out into the hills and forest or to be able to go skiing. The location of Oslo is really special and the city and its surrounding areas were fantastic for my family. We miss things like going fungus hunting in the forest and coming home with bags and bags of chanterelle mushrooms. This kind of thing isn’t quite so good around Copenhagen.
In terms of NCMM, I miss my colleagues. We were all in the same boat, so the challenges and the good news always felt shared. I built a fantastic group there and we made some great research discoveries and progress. I also miss the freedom that being a young group leader brought for me; NCMM didn’t have much of a hierarchical system. It’s certainly quite different being a senior professor.
Finally, can you tell us a bit more about your new role at DTU and what your research focus here will be, and if you plan to collaborate with NCMM or other Norwegian research environments?
I think I have always been quite collaborative and eager to work with people where I can. I’m still working with Irep (Gözen) – we have submitted two grant applications together and, whilst these have not yet been successful, we plan to do more. This collaboration came about after I became more interested in the biophysical world; before I joined NCMM I was a purely structural biologist. I’m now trying to better understand lipid-protein interactions and, in particular, the magnesium transport system which is something I focused on at NCMM. It worked perfectly that Irep and her group were all set up for making lipid vesicles which could help me with this research. My former student, Julia Weikum, is doing her PhD on lipid-protein interactions and she’s due to defend her thesis this in November. Had I known that so many great structural biologists, like Hartmut (Luecke) and Nikolina (Sekulic) would be hired, I might have stayed on for a bit longer to work more with lipid-related projects. However, I came to feel like my research didn’t quite fit in with the precision medicine route that NCMM was taking.
One of my first papers that came out at NCMM was with Stefan Krauss, one of the founding partners of NCMM who is now based at the University of Oslo and Oslo University Hospital. He was trying to determine how a drug that he was working with bound to a certain protein, called the PARP5 family, and he needed someone to crystallise it. He had a secretary who was working on finishing her master’s degree and it made sense for her to come to NCMM to complete the purification under my supervision. We ended up generating the crystals and subsequently published a paper which has gone on to be cited over 50 times. We just published another paper together this year (2020) so it’s been a long-term collaboration. The first paper then ended up acting as leverage to get a grant from the Norwegian Research Council which then funded Harmoni (Perdreau-Dahl) in my group for four years. It’s a nice example that collaborations can be very long term and don’t necessarily have to result in constant publications. We discovered a new mechanism for a completely unknown protein called SSSCA1. This was a project that in my wildest imagination I would not have started if I hadn’t had the time to explore and try out new things.